A Contemplative Silent Night

For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel,
    “In returning and rest you shall be saved;
    in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15)

How is it that we can experience strength and rest in silence?

We find the answer to this question by exploring one of the most familiar Christmas carols of all time.

Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child!
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace!

These first lines from Silent Night might help us to experience deeper levels in our prayer life.

A young Catholic priest, named Joseph Mohr, authored this poem in Austria in the year 1816. It was not actually Fr. Mohr’s intention to write a Christmas carol. However, when the poem was put to music in 1818 by an organist named Franz Xaver Gruber and was performed throughout Europe, the song quickly became one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time, and it remains so to this day. But this well-known song can also teach us something about the practice of contemplative prayer. 

First, we recall that, in simple terms, prayer can be vocal, (using the spoken word), meditative (engaging the mind) and contemplative (engaging the heart). Next, we consider the spiritual meaning of the word silence, for it is not merely the absence of sound. Silence, when practiced in prayer, is actually the elimination of anything that would impede our ability to hear God speaking to us in the way God prefers to communicate—in silence.

We all understand that the use of vocal prayer requires the utterance of words—sound. Likewise, even though we may not speak our prayer of meditation, it none the less incorporates words used by the mind. In contemplation, however, we do not allow the mouth or the mind to enter into the pure communication God wants to impart to us. We hear with our heart.

Now we know that the seat of love is the heart, and we further know that God is love—all love, pure love. When God wishes to speak to the deepest part of who we are, He speaks directly to our heart. If we are going to be able to experience God’s silent communication, then we must be able to eliminate everything that might distract God’s silent communication from getting to our heart. 

In this sense, silence is not primarily the elimination of noise or sound waves, it is actually the most intense form of listening and receptivity the human person can practice. This silence is an awareness of something communicated without either speaking or thinking. God’s communication is entirely heart to heart.

God speaks in the silence of the heart. (St. Teresa of Calcutta)

Silent night! Holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight!
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born!
Christ the Savior is born!

This experience of God’s direct communication can impact us in any number of ways. We might find ourselves suddenly weeping without understanding why, or we may start rocking back and forth. We may feel a profound sense of peace or warmth, or we may experience a powerful sense of awe; this is what we understand as “Fear of the Lord.” It is a sudden awareness of God’s immense presence.

Shepherds quake at the sight!

But this it is not something we pull back from, instead, it makes us immediately and intensely aware of a heavenly force, something we seldom experience. It is the awesomeness of the living God, and His power flows directly to the human heart.

Glories stream from heaven afar,

The preparation for this encounter is not primarily about finding a quiet place and eliminating noise. For in truth, God can draw us into His presence even in the midst of a crowd. The real distraction is the noise resident in the human heart, the result of all the confusion we allow to enter our speech, our minds, and even our hearts on a daily basis. Instead, what we need to enter into this silence is to focus on the only thing that matters, the Glory of the Lord.

One thing is needful. (Luke 10:42)

Silent night! Holy night!
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth!
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth!

This requires an expectant waiting for what we know is to come.

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government will be upon his shoulder,
    and his name will be called
“Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)

These words from the Prophet Isaiah foretell the coming of the Savior, and if we would willingly enter into that moment of silence expectancy, if we would focus on the ‘one thing necessary,’ and if we would eliminate all the noise that is so prevalent in the worldly influence of this Season, we too might come to experience the presence of the Prince of Peace, and the gift only He can offer.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. (John 14:27)

Now the obvious question is, just how do we enter into this wonderful silence—the silence that will allow us to experience peace beyond this world?

It turns out the path to the heart of contemplation is actually through vocal and meditative prayer. They serve as the means of eliminating both the exterior and the interior noise, and they are the vehicles to transport us to the center of our heart, where we encounter the Lord in silence and peace. Here is how it works.

Simply begin by repeating, over and over again, a simple prayerful phrase, something like, “Jesus, Lord, at thy birth!

Continue to repeat this phrase until these are the only words coming out of your mouth and remain focused exclusively on these to the exclusion of all else.

Then, we should move to another phrase that we will think about, reflect upon and meditate on until this phrase becomes the sole focus of our thoughts. This process does not drive away other thoughts or mental images that might distract us. Instead, they simply dissolve away because we pay them no attention. We could meditate on a phrase like:

Christ the Savior is born!

Finally, we might allow another phrase to work its way into our heart, in this case moving from the head to the heart as we initially think about it. But then, we stop giving the phrase any consideration and just allow its reality to enter our heart. Here we might consider a phrase like:

Sleep in heavenly peace!

By allowing this phrase to enter our hearts, we can come to experience the reality of what they offer—profound peace; a peace the world cannot give.

This is not a magical formula for contemplative prayer, these are not phrases we can just rattle off in minutes and expect to enter into deep prayer. In fact, we do not enter into contemplative prayer at all, God must draw us into it. What we do is get ourselves to the threshold of the doorway, and then the Lord takes over. 

This process can take time, but the reward is well worth the effort.

Let us all take time this week to dispose ourselves to deeper prayer and allow the Lord to offer His out-of-this-world Peace.

God Bless

Article: Copyright © Mark Danis

Image: “Adoration of the Shepherds” (detail) | Gerard van Honthorst, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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